View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
Despair is one of twenty works produced by contemporary artists for the Cubitt Print Box in 2000. Cubitt is an artist-run gallery and studio complex in north London. In 2001 the complex moved from King’s Cross to Islington and the prints were commissioned as part of a drive to raise funds to help finance the move, and to support future exhibitions and events at the new gallery space. All the artists who contributed to the project had previously taken part in Cubitt’s programme. The portfolio was produced in an edition of 100 with twenty artists’ proofs; Tate’s copy is number sixty-six in the series.
Higgs’ print is a lithograph of a page taken from what appears to be populist Victorian novel. Almost all the words on the page are crossed out. The only bits of text that are not crossed out are the page number ‘94’ on the bottom left and a portion of dialogue that reads, ‘“Ah, me! ... What can there be more commonplace than an impecunious artist? If some good soul helped me to arrange an exhibition, next day I’d be famous and rich.”’
The crossed out lines in the work refer to the conceptual tradition of appropriating and amending work by other artists or writers. This strategy recalls Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) by Robert Rauschenberg (born 1925). The wavy lines in Higgs’ print turn the page into an abstract drawing, focussing attention on the shape of the words and paragraphs and sardonically privileging the meaning of a selected quotation from the narrative.
The quotation expresses the fantasy familiar from novels and Hollywood films of an unknown artist achieving overnight success. The work’s deadpan tone is heightened by the title, Despair, which suggests the emotional suffering an artist might endure by persisting in the delusional certainty that he or she will one day be discovered and celebrated. Higgs also works as a curator, and the quotation may have appealed to him not only as an artist but also in his role as a ‘good soul’ who has organised exhibitions and other projects with artists, including many of those involved with Cubitt in the 1990s.
The stilted, antiquated language of the excerpt and the yellowish colour of the paper reproduced in the lithograph suggest the source for the print is an old paperback. Despair is part of a body of work by Higgs in which pages from old and out-of-print books are presented as readymades. In the early 1990s Higgs made a series of works using pulp detective novels as source material, extracting pages with references to artworks and crossing out the rest of the lines. More recently he has reproduced the inside title pages of books relating to the history, practice or reception of art. Typical titles in this ongoing series include ‘Art is for All’, ‘Art for Art’s Sake’, ‘I Married an Artist’ and ‘Frame It!’
Andrew Hunt, ‘Matthew Higgs’, Frieze, no.74, April 2003, p.95.
David Barrett, ‘Matthew Higgs & Imprint 93’, Art Monthly, no.189, September 1995, pp.45-6.